Short Cuts 

Beck besieged.

Sea Change

Beck

(Geffen/Interscope)

Poor Beck. He sounds like a walking existential crisis.

Sort of a less funky Mutations, the folky, bluesy Sea Change is arguably his best album to date -- certainly his most mature -- the very introspective, cathectic work of an artist distancing himself from the clumsy kid he once was. Mutations' wonderfully evocative "newfangled wasteland" is now a dark and stormy sea fraught with allusions to Shakespeare's Tempest: "Drown, drown/Sailors run aground/In the sea change/Nothing is safe/Strange waves/Push us every way/In a stone boat/We're thrown away," Beck mournfully intones on "Little One" while haunting voices and military drums augur a watery grave -- but that saltwater taste is only from the tears he doesn't want to cry anymore.

In truth, the comparison to Mutations doesn't do the new album justice. It's a different, more ruminative animal: the record of a Beck besieged -- and coming out of it as sound as a bomb shelter, albeit scarred, rattled, and relying on well-worn phrases to express the devastation of lost love. The wildly creative, sometimes nonsensical lyrics of the past are not here. They can't be. With Beck so subdued, they would not ring true.

The rich acoustic, countryish sound that prevails throughout Sea Change is a perfect landscape for the melancholy message being telegraphed across it. Layers of sound, beguilingly atmospheric, hover over each tune like supernatural influences. Nigel Godrich -- who also produced Mutations, worked on Radiohead's OK Computer and Amnesiac, and engineered Carnival Of Light, the third LP from once-glorious shoegazers Ride -- is an excellent match for Beck's deeply personal work, not afraid to add a little swooning orchestration and dabs of electronica sure to be criticized as pretentious "overproduction" by some. The killer, funk-lite "Paper Tiger" is bolstered by vaguely East Indian strings reminiscent of those on Elton John's Madman Across the Water, while "Lost Cause" rides an infectious yet simple dual-guitar melody. Beck's subtle baritone is stronger than expected on such lingeringly sad ballads as "All In Your Mind," in which he laments, "I cannot believe/You got a devil up your sleeve/And he's talking to me ... And I wanted to be/A good friend." Ouch: You can feel the knife in his back. One of the songs in which drums break up the plaintive weariness is "Already Dead," a gorgeous little dirge. "Sunday Sun" warps the predominant sobriety back toward the trash-culture musical appropriation of Beck's earlier work, ending in a collision of feedback and effects after some of the album's more soaring, cock-strong vocals.

Sea Change's cloak of sadness may be a little restricting for some on the first listen, especially the Odelay addicts out there, but persevere: It would be a much sadder day if Beck were to repeat himself. Exploration of self is one of the keys to making irreproachable art, and you can't blame a man for looking inward ... and showing you what he found there.

An instant classic. -- Jeremy Spencer

Grade: A

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

(Touch & Go)

Music writers frequently substitute the term "rawk" for "rock" to differentiate the heaving behemoth of the music at its most physically assertive from the umbrella term for the genre and overall culture -- to separate the men from the boys and the women from the girls, as it were. In the case of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, though, I tend to think of the neologism as a combination of "rock" and "awkward." There's an innate gawkiness about both guitarist Nick Zinner's spiky riffs and Karen O's shaky vocals, and that's both the most appealing thing about them and the most suspect.

What's appealing is also what's immediate. Yeah Yeah Yeahs is formally punk: five songs in 14 minutes, rama-lama guitar/drums, yelped vox, "gimme, gimme, I wanna do stuff" lyrics. But unlike neo-garage bands like the Strokes or the Hives, there's little chewy center to their rock candy. A bootlegger can mount Christina Aguilera's vocals atop the Strokes' backing melody because they're every bit as pop as she is. Try that with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and they'd throw Aguilera off and break her collarbone.

Which means that we'll be spared the spectacle of Karen O collaborating with Desmond Child on theme songs for Spider-Man sequels; wish I could predict the same for Julian Casablancas. But when she squeals, "What I need tonight's the real thing/I need the real thing tonight/Yeah, yeah, yeah" on "Bang," are we supposed to burst into applause at her self-conscious primitivism? Or should we merely suspect she'll be going back to art school soon enough -- that she doesn't have nearly as much invested in this as she says she does? Maybe I'm just being an overintellectual churl. Maybe Karen O really does just want to rawk. Incontestably, for these five songs and 14 minutes, she does. But I wouldn't be surprised if she never does it again, nor would I feel all that betrayed.

-- Michaelangelo Matos

Grade: B+

Listening Log

Call and Response -- Bangs (Kill Rock Stars): The Bangles go garage on a quick-and-dirty EP from the Olympia scene's most straightforward rockers. It's 16 minutes of sludge on first listen, but rad tunes soon emerge from the grease and grime. ("New Scars," "Kinda Good," "Dirty Knives")

Grade: B+

I, John -- John Forte (Transparent Music): Recorded on the quick before heading up for a 14-year drug-trafficking bid and faced with a crushing but far from unprecedented fate (see Slick Rick, among others), this onetime mediocre-rapping Fugees protégé embraces soul and reggae and makes a record of redemption and farewell songs worthy of the gravity of his situation. ("What a Difference," "Reunion," "Harmonize")

Grade: B+

All Of the Above -- J-Live (Coup d'Etat): This underground hype/middle school teacher isn't a backpacker or gangsta, b-boy or thug -- just your average, everyday MC kicking (agreeable) rhymes over (laid-back) beats. ("Satisfied," "How Real It Is," "MCee")

Grade: B+

I Phantom -- Mr. Lif (Def Jux): Hip hop goes to college, with only the best results. Whether outlining the perils of wage slavery, ballin' on a budget at the club down the street, or revealing that "underground rapper" wasn't the career choice his parents had in mind, this Beantown-based rookie-of-the-year contender paints a realistic portrait of how hip hop's overeducated, underemployed other half lives. His flow evokes Native Tongues; his music rocks harder. ("Live From the Plantation," "New Man's Theme," "Status")

Grade: A-

Highly Evolved -- The Vines (Capitol): Rock is back? If this retread of tired-on-contact "modern rock" tropes is the future, come back, Britney; all is forgiven. Did white guitar rock really get so bad that nostalgia for post-Nirvana product like Bush and Stone Temple Pilots could be mistaken for "evolution"? When it explodes, it's more pipe bomb than "The Hives Declare Guerre Nucleaire." And when it drags? Oh, boy And their Brit-rock/Beatles impressions suck. As Australian imports go, more listenable than Silverchair but no match for Kylie Minogue. ("Outtathaway," "Get Free") --Chris Herrington

Grade: C

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